Skull OrchardOk, this has to be said: English isn’t my prime language, so I should leave my hands off this. Please be patient with my understanding of the lyrics. The original release has lyric sheets to fill the gaps in my understanding, especially of track 13
Tubby Bros. (2:20)
Penny Arcades (3:50)
Butter Song (3:12)
Sentimental Marching Song (4:20)
Trap Door (2:40)
Inside The Whale (3:30)
I Am The Law (2:10)
Pill Sailor (2:25)
Last Count (3:30)
My Own Worst Enemy (3:00)
I’m Stopping This Train (2:45)
Deep Sea Driver
Tom Jones Levitation (4:20);
Last song (1:04)
Jon Langford’s debut solo album SKULL ORCHARD is released by Sugarfree Records of Chicago on January 20th.
Jon Langford’s solo songwriting project THE SKULL ORCHARD has evolved into a full blown band which consists of Langford on guitar and vocals, notorious Chicago guitar demon Mark Durante (ex- Revolting Cocks, KMFDM), drummer Steve Goulding (ex-Gang Of Four, Graham Parker & The Rumour) and bass player Alan Doughty (ex-Jesus Jones). Also on the record are Sally Timms, Jane Baxter-Miller, Edith Frost, John Rice and more….
Having lived in America for the last 5 years (currently playing break-neck hard country with his band the Waco Brothers), Skull Orchard sees Langford turning his attention back across the Atlantic to the country he grew up in. Seen through the eyes of an exile, South Wales is a sad, neglected place where mines and factories close down as toxic waste dumps and McDonalds appear out of nowhere. Only the defiant spirit of its people keeps the place alive.
These wordy, angry songs reflect that spirit and represent a major departure for Langford’s songwriting. The subject matter is tackled head-on with lovely melodies and spacious arrangements that can turn on a sixpence into some of the hardest rocking he’s been involved in since The Three Johns or The Mekons Rock’N’Roll album.
Sassy Hicks, BBC Radio Wales
From The New York Times – Tuesday January 13th 1998
Critic’s Choice/Pop CDs by Jon Pareles
After decades of singing with noisy, disheveled bands like the Mekons, the Waco Brothers and the Three Johns, Jon Langford leads a straightforward, streamlined rock band for his first solo album, “Skull Orchard” (Sugar Free). The songs push ahead confidently, like country-rock with an infusion of the Who, and Langford applies his gruff voice to full-fledged melodies. Within his clear-cut rockers and waltzes, Langford has a lot on his mind:
commercialization, unemployment, Wales’ history, private insecurities and plastic surgery, a procedure he sums up as: “Strive for perfection/Do away with yourself.” Smart, cynical and still impassioned about the state of humanity, Langford has recharged his music by stripping away any indulgences.
From No Depression January 1998
Do You Think About Me
The Waco Brothers put out the gnarliest of a more sentimental crop of roots rockers last year – twice, for good measure. Mostly a collection of outtakes, the ten-song CD Do You Think About Me was intended to be the kicker that last January’s Cowboy In Flames needed to land on year-end top ten lists. Its title track may nevertheless be the most memorable Wacos song ever, a hooky, hornsplashed everyman’s love song penned by Nashville’s Lonesome Bob.
Lest we forget whence came their name, the Wacos also summoned the 10,000 dunebuggy revelation of Neil Young’s carbineladen trailer park guardians on the edge of town. The reggae lilt of Young’s original “Revolution Blues” is left eating their dust, and the hint of “Sympathy For The Devil” in the background vocals underscores the continuity of displaced disaffection over these 20-odd years, plus a millennium or two before them.
“Arizona Rose” is as close as the Wacos get to a ladies’ choice slow dance; “South Bend” is a heartaching tribute to those who know you can go home again, but it eats you alive to have to. The Waco Brothers/Clash connection is concrete in the “Hitsville, UK” sister city tune, “The Wickedest City In The World”, for which the background vocals provide a delightfully familiar landscape. “Napa Valley” will have living-room audiences worldwide singing along: “I’ve been drunk a thousand times/l would sober up, but there’s no reason.”
As busy as he is restoring heat to the flickering light of American country rock, Wacos troop leader Jon Langford has not forgotten his native Wales. To its plight he has dedicated the first record in his 20-year career to bear the imprimatur of his own name. He’s quick to credit others’ contributions, including harmonies and backing vocals by fellow Mekon Sally Timms, Drag City Records artist Edith Frost and the Texas Rubies’ Jane Baxter Miller; accordion by Mekon Rico Bell; rhythm and guitar by most of the Waco Brothers and former Bottle Rockets bassist Tom Ray; and others. Still, Langford wrote all the songs, spearheaded the produstion and plays organ as well as guitar.
Langford returns to Wales regulaIly enough to mark its decline from his youth. The songs on Skull Orchard expose this decay in the harsh light of his perpetually restless anger. Themes of urban blight and exploitation, established early on the CD with “Tubby Bros.”, “Penny Arcades” and “Butter Song”, slip inward mid-record, yielding to the resigned self-awareness of “Pill Sailor”, “Last Count” and “My Own Worst Enemy”.
In the first, a sailor relates his disorientation in the wake of dock closures in the town of Pill. With a hint of sea-chantey sway, the adventurer implores, ‘Tell me something I don’t know/And find me a skipper with someplace to go/’Cause these ropes are all knotted and tangled ’round me/I’m a sailor who wandered a little too far from the sea.”
“Last Count” is a loser’s anthem: “How many nights did I sit and drink ’til the big one slipped away?…So play another num ber/lt’s only half past one/And I’m a fraction of the person/That you once counted on/At the last count my days were numbered, chalked up on the wall/At the last count there’s nothing I want at all. . .Well it’s 1-2-3, I’m fallin’/5-6-7, I hate myself.”
The message isn’t the whole story here. The infectious, soul-horned “I’m Stopping This Train”, for instance, spotlights Steve Goulding’s sheer autllority over a groove, but tempos are mixed throughout, and with hints of Latin rhythllls, blues riffs and even a flute solo, the songs rove as many genres as the Pill sailor has seas.
Most artists might float more than a year on an effort as strong as Cowboy In Flames, but they’d likely tour behind it, too, a length to which Langford and friends are loath to go. Fans outside Chicago jonesing for live shows will have to settle for this fine, new music.
Linda Ray in No Depression, January 1998
robert christgau’s consumer picks in the january 22 edition of the village voice:
JON LANGFORD: SKULL ORCHARD (sugar free)
The difference is palpaple. The Mekons, Waco Brothers, 3 Johns, Killer Shrews, and I forget whoare/were groups that couldn’t do without Langford,whereas this is Langford deploying backup musicians,aides d’arte who happen to be Wacos as well. There’sno band feel, no sense of music-in-process–the garrulous artiste is audibly up top, organizing structural support for a sheaf of good tunes, and while the best ofthese is courteously passed onto Gertrude Stein, whowrote the words to “Butter Song,” all the rest belong toJonboy. Anyone who’s tried to keep up with his one-linersknows he’s an articulate bastard, but he’s better off whenhe doesn’t have to get to the end in 75 words or less, whichis why his country band has always thrived on covers. Herehe runs on, confessing his antisocial tendencies like thesinger-songwriter he temporarily is–without forgetting thatcapitalism is antisocial too. A MINUS
Will He Ever Stop?
Jon Langford has another New Record, This Time With His New Band, Skull Orchard
by Rob Cooper
It seems that every four of five months, Jon Langford puts out a new record under one of his many musical guises. As soon as you turn around, there’s a new Mekons, or Waco Brothers or Hillbilly Love Child or Pine Valley Cosmonauts release (I’m probably missing a few bands here). Now Jonboy has added another band to the list; Jon Langford’s Skull Orchard. Skull Orchard is essentially a pared-down version of the popular Waco’s line-up. They have a new record Skull Orchard out on 1/17/98 Sugar Free Records.
So what about the new record? First off, though it’s still early in the year, I’m predicting this to be one of the top releases of ’98. Langford is a relatively important artist in the history of modern music and this is his best effort to date. To a certain degree, I guess that you could try say that it’s more of the same: country/roots inflected boozy-punk, but where Langford’s other efforts revel in whiskey-soaked bar-room style rock, this album is more restrained and (dare I say it) melodic. It’s quite difficult to characterize. Though it is a rock album, musical influences from all over the map (and history) make themselves felt here.
Thematically, Langford is at his standard anti-urban best, singing about the seamy and depressing under-side of the American dream.
Unlike anything else I’ve ever heard Langford produce, this record is pretty. The band sounds tighter and more energetic than almost anyone else in rock these days, but there is an odd sort of sadness throughout. Where Langford usually angrily rails against political and cultural ills while reveling in personal social excess, this record seems more reflective and mature. The drunken glee (and drunken indignation) that characterize the Wacos are notably and almost refreshingly absent here. Though we’ve always known that the injustice of the world makes Langford angry, Skull Orchard gives us a glimpse of the sadness that goes hand-in-hand with that anger. OVERNIGHT REVIEWS
Rock review, Jon Langford
By Greg Kot
TRIBUNE ROCK CRITIC
Saturday, February 7, 1998
Even in Chicago’s incestuous underground scene, where working musicians can be seen playing, drinking and then passing out with a different band virtually every other weekend, Jon Langford sets a fast pace.
Since moving here from England several years ago, he’s worked up a soundtrack for local theater; kept up a steady stream of releases and concerts as a member of the Waco Brothers, the Mekons and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts; co-written songs and performed with fellow Mekon Sally Timms; and cranked out a steady stream of artwork and a weekly comic strip.
But Skull Orchard, which took the shrink wrap off its debut album over the weekend at Schubas, may be his most personal project yet. The recipe for the singer-songwriter’s latest venture: Take two-thirds of country-punk sextet the Waco Brothers, subtract a pedal-steel guitar and add lyrics steeped in the arcana of Langford’s native south Wales.
With Steve Goulding on drums, Alan Doughty on bass and Mark Durante on guitar, Langford’s Skull Orchard played straight-ahead rock, sea chanteys and bleary ballads without the art-punk trappings of the Mekons or the twang of the Wacos.
The songs are set in Wales, and they’re a bleak lot. “Too many billboards, too many chains/The spice of life has gone down to zero . . . I lost my job and I lost my way/Down the trap door, down the drain,” Langford brayed while Goulding hammered nails into his snare.
“Inside the Whale” sneered at the “progress” that has left Wales a wasteland of the spirit, while “Youghal” mixed regret with the relief of one Welshman who got out just in time: “The young left long ago/To look for work in London/Boston and Chicago.”
The more fragile textures of the Skull Orchard debut album, on the local Sugar Free label, were duplicated by a guest vocalist, violinist and flutist, but even at its most introspective this performance was no pity party for the irretrievable past.
The songs were as immediate as bulletins from a sinking ship, tinged by surrealism (“Tom Jones Levitation”) and embodied by the shaven-headed Doughty, who alternated eloquent bass leads with pinwheeling, karate-kicking anarchy–like the last dancer amid ruins.
Fred Armisen y su Mensaje de Caracas opened with a set of South American rhythms, from sultry bossa novas to brisk cha-chas, that suggested a depth well beyond indie-rock dilettantism. Though lacking a distinctive lead vocalist, Armisen’s six-piece ensemble layered the beats into first-rate body music. JON LANGFORD: “Skull Orchard” (Sugar Free); CHRIS MILLS: “Every Night Fight for Your Life” (Sugar Free)
by Mark Jenkins
The Washington Post
Even though he hasn’t lived there for some 20 years, Jon Langford devotes his first solo album to his boyhood home, deindustrialized South Wales. The Chicago-based singer-guitarist, a sometime member of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers, mines the region’s everyday subjects: pollution, joblessness, alienation, strong drink. But “Skull Orchard” (which is also the name of Langford’s current backup band) has its surprises: a track with lyrics by Gertrude Stein, the rollicking horns of “Sentimental Marching Song” and a closing lament, “Tom Jones Levitation,” in which fellow Mekon Sally Timms announces the results of a poll that named the singer of “What’s New, Pussycat?” as the preferred candidate for president of an autonomous Welsh republic.
Without his customary collaborators, Langford is revealed as a fairly conventional roots-rock tunesmith. Still, this is a sturdy collection of songs, well proportioned between ballads (“Youghal,” about the Irish town where John Huston filmed “Moby Dick”) and rockers (“I’m Stopping This Train,” a typically dread-filled anthem). The backdrop is different, but Langford offers his standard blend of mockery, resignation and defiance. This is music for an independent Wales — or for an emigre declaring hisindependence of Wales.
Like “Skull Orchard,” Chris Mills’s “Every Night Fight for Your Life” is decorated with family photos and occasional vocals by Chicago singer Edith Frost. The songwriter’s work, however, lacks Langford’s mordant wit and expansive worldview. Mills’s album, his second, has a fashionably stark sound, but his country-rock tunes and gravelly voice are unremarkable. The singer is backed here by members of such indie-rock groups as Red Red Meat and Paul K and the Weathermen, but if Mills had come along two decades earlier songs like “Fire for You” and “Funeral Date” might have been covered by the Eagles.
Jon Langford and Skull Orchard at the CMJ Music Fest (NY)
There has been a buzz about Jon Langford in the music industry since he was the front man of the acclaimed Mekons in the mid- and late- 70′s punk scene in Leeds, England. Though he has played New York probably 50 times before this show, this was his first
From: Centerstage time here with his new country-punk outfit Skull Orchard and there was still a bit of excitement in the air.
I was doing the writer thing: drinking a beer by myself, hanging out at the back of the venue, The Arlene Grocery in Tribeca in New York. It seems as though that I was not alone… I guess my notebook gave it away.
“Who are you with?”
“Me, I’m with Centerstage and DiveIn Chicago.”
“Oh, I write for Spin.”
“I’m with the Village Voice.”
“I’m with Microsoft Sidewalk New York.”
When an acquaintance of mine from college, Rob Levine, an associate editor at Rolling Stone showed up, I knew that I was at the show to be at in NY that evening. And all the quiet hype proved to be correct; none of the jaded writer types were disappointed. Skull Orchard opened the set with a rambling, rambunctious, fun-lovin’ country punk number that set the tone for the rest of the evening. Langford’s years of experience touring and playing shows were evidenced by his banter with the capacity crowd (and bar staff) from stage and his easy-going attitude.
The Skull Orchard followed the bare-chested NY nouveau-glam/country punk (if you can imagine such a thing) act Vaporhead. Langford jokingly assured the crowd that he and his other 40-something bandmates would do their best to equal Vaporhead’s visual splendor. “Don’t you worry, we’ll take our shirts off later. You’ll be blinded.”
Though Skull Orchard followed the same basic formula as Langford’s other, better known project, the Waco Brothers, they put a bit more emphasis on the rock side of things and used their country influenes to spice up the set, rather than act as the main course. He and his capable band rambled through a rocking set that often seemed more like a party that everyone was participating in rather than a regular old rock show. Langford is one of the most gifted performers in terms of breaking down the traditional barries between band and audience. Even the self-conscious, hipper-than-thou writers and industry types could be seen to be moving around and getting into the music and the atmosphere.
Chicago-based Skull Orchard has a record coming out on hometown Sugar Free Records sometime in November.
As if to emphasize that this was just a good time and not a Big Time Rock And Roll Show, Langford smilingly addressed the bar staff toward the end of the set: “Can we get some water for the drummer, he’s going to expire. We’re not as young as we used to be…”
And almost as an afterthought:
“Oh, and some beer would be nice too.”
“Skull Orchard” review from the April, 1998 issue of “Raygun” magazine
Jon Langford has been making so much good music for so long with so many different bands (the Mekons, the Three Johns, the Waco Brothers and sundry one-off projects) that a solo-slbum seems kind of dopey. Like any good communist (or anarchist, depending on the interview), he works best with a bunch of like-minded individuals. And it’s not entirely clear what qualifies “Skull Orchard” as a solo-album, anyway, since most everyone playing on this record has been in one of Langford’s other bands at some point or other, and since it features his usual bag of tricks: angry anthems, angry twists on olde folke traditions, and singing that might not have perfect pitch but is always pitched perfectly, with lots of angrrry, rrrighteous rrrolling of r’s.
Nonetheless, “Skull Orchard” is a damn good record, and those rolling r’s offer a pretty good clue why Langford recorded these songs under his own name: he’s a Welshman, and most of these songs find him brooding about what’s become of his homeland. The record starts with visions of small-town funerals and ends with Tom Jones (another Welsh crooner, but probably not an anarchist) flying over the countryside, looking down at “the greedy hand/ of the vandals who ravaged the land.” In between, the film crew for “Moby Dick” brings an ominously temporary economic boom to a small Welsh fishing village, billboards go up, docks shut down, and unemployed sailors get really drunk and wonder what went wrong.
If that sounds like standard Langford territory, what’s refreshing is how he places himself amidst all of the misery. “Staggering ’round Cardiff/ Just looking for sex,” he sings in “Deep Sea Diver,” “now I’m caught in the wreckage/ with the other old wrecks.” It sounds like Langford suprised himself, here: what started out as a fun jaunt through his old stomping grounds ended with him stumbling over some painful realizations. Always excellent at spying hypocrisy, ten songs into the record he can’t help training his eye on himself. By the time he gets to “My Own Worst Enemy,” he’s no longer so sure just what he’s going to say: “I open my mouth/ and what will you get?/ A friend down the years/ or some bitter old shit?”
It’s a testament to Langford’s prodigious talent that he makes even that bitter old shit sound like a friend you’d like to keep.
Chicago Sun-Times / January 11, 1998, SUNDAY
Sugar Free sweetens lineup with raw talent
BY: Dave Hoekstra
The organic music of Jon Langford, Chris Mills, Birddog and others is sweetening the booty for Sugar Free Records, one of the most divergent imprints to break out of Chicago’s burgeoning independent label scene.
Sugar Free is difficult to pin down, but easy to pick up. If there’s one characteristic that connects the label’s five artists, it’s the ability to speak eloquently from a wretched soul.
Langford is the best-known artist on Sugar Free. The irrepressible member of the Mekons and Waco Brothers steps out solo for “Skull Orchard,” a dark yet melodic rock record that reflects on his native South Wales. The poignant Welshman juxtaposes the shuttered mines and factories of his homeland with modern-day toxic wastelands and fast-food restaurants.
Langford’s “Skull Orchard” band consists of Waco Brothers drummer Steve Goulding, guitarist Mark Durante and bassist Alan Doughty (Jesus Jones). Studio guests include vocalists Sally Timms of the Mekons, Edith Frost, Jane Baxter-Miller, and fiddle player John Rice.
Ranging from the dirge “Sentimental Marching Song” to the beautiful “Youghal,” a duet with Baxter-Miller, “Skull Orchard” blossoms into Langford’s most personal statement.
“Skull Orchard” launches with a release party at 10:30 p.m. Feb. 6 at Schubas Tavern, 3159 N. Southport (773-525-2508, $ 8). And at 10 p.m. Jan. 31, Schubas hosts a record release party for Mills’ “Every Night Fight for Your Life,” a deeply moody exploration of American roots idioms. Mills will be backed by a five-piece band with guests floating in and out. (Cover is $ 6.) Both projects are due Feb. 17, although CDs will be available at both parties.
“We want to be free to work in different styles and treat every one of our acts differently,” label co-founder Thaddeus Rudd said in an interview at the Sugar Free office/house near Logan Square. “Chris Mills may be a star. Jon Langford may not be signed to a major label because he’s Jon Langford. He’s been through that already. We have bands with different goals.
“But it’s all accessible music. We’re not going to be releasing basement recordings. The paradigm shift in the indie rock community is that instead of recording half-finished ideas, people now are interested in Radiohead and the way they use the studio. You can spend time in the studio to achieve beautiful results that don’t necessarily make it more commercial.”
Sugar Free started about 18 months ago under the muse of Northwestern University graduates Rudd (class of ’94) and Doug Lefrak (class of ’93). Lefrak is the new talent buyer at Schubas.
A week after Rudd graduated with a degree in art history, he snagged an entry-level job running the college marketing department at Virgin Records in Los Angeles. Rudd helped promote acts like the Smashing Pumpkins, Cracker and the Rolling Stones. But more important, he met college reps David Simkins (who was at the University of Michigan) and Matt Mirande (Boston University), who are now Sugar Free partners in New York and Boston, respectively.
Sugar Free’s first releases were Mills’ “Nobody’s Favorite,” an EP recorded in a Chicago apartment, and “Blazing Rains,” a raw, itinerant home recording project from singer-songwriter Blazing Rains (a.k.a. Tim Hanford) of Fair Haven, N.Y.
The label has expanded to include Wheat, a melancholy mid-fi band from Boston, and Birdog (a.k.a. Bill Santen of Portland, Ore.), whose cryptic debut, “The Trackhouse, the Valley, the Liquor Store Drive-Thru,” sounds like what would have happened had Nick Cave been the third Louvin Brother.
Despite Sugar Free’s far-reaching roots, Rudd and Lefrak set up shop in Chicago. But the four partners weren’t concerned about exploiting style gaps in the vast local independent landscape.
“I had a lot of enthusiasm for the Drag City (Royal Trux, Smog, Pavement) and Thrill Jockey (Cake, Freakwater) labels,” Rudd said. “And this was before Bloodshot (Waco Brothers, Robbie Fulks) and Minty Fresh (Cardigans, Veruca Salt). There was an inkling good music was being made here.
“It was always a difficult existence when we were in college here: the weather, taking the L through the city. But there was an energy and toughness that was different than being in Los Angeles, having it be 70 degrees in the morning.”
Sugar Free was established with the spirit of a collective. “Without being patronizing, we wanted to take these artists under our wings,” Rudd said. “Structurally that means doing 50-50 contracts, booking our bands, taking care of a lot of duties and phone calls that are typically done by management. None of our bands have managers.”
Some listeners will find a mid- or low-fi sound that connects the Sugar Free product, but Rudd and Lefrak point out that low production costs don’t mean they aren’t concerened about sales.
“Production aesthetic has nothing to do with sales,” Lefrak said. “Chris Mills’ record is beautiful in sound. It’s rough, it’s awesome. You’re going to hear his voice right in your face. You’ll hear guitar and other elements. It’s a beautiful dynamic.”
Mills’ “Every Night Fight for Your Life” was recorded at Chicago’s Kingsize Soundlabs and Uber Studio. The jagged country-blues project was co-produced by Mills, a 23-year-old native of Downstate Collinsville, and Red Red Meat drummer Brian Deck.
“When we were mixing, there was a lot of talk on where the vocals should be placed,” Mills said. “Should they be more up-front? Will anyone play it on the radio if they’re not? You basically have to go into it not caring and just decide on the sounds you like.” The Washington Post / February 27, 1998, Friday
HEADLINE: Jon Langford’s Small Band
BY: Mark Jenkins Without his fellow Mekons, Jon Langford sometimes seems a bit lonesome on his new solo album, “Skull Orchard.” Wednesday night at the Black Cat, however, the wisecracking singer-guitarist made the whole audience part of his gang. It was such a small crowd that Langford jokingly boasted that he “could pack a telephone box in Washington on a Wednesday night,” but that didn’t limit the show’s spirit.
“Skull Orchard” is sort of a concept album about the Chicago-based performer’s boyhood home, deindustrialized South Wales. That’s not a light topic, but Langford addressed it with wit and verve. Introducing “Deep Sea Diver,” he noted that an audience member in St. Louis had called it a “sexy song.” “We thought it was about urban decay,” he shrugged.
“Sexy songs about urban decay” is a reasonable description of the new album’s tunes, and Langford and his three-piece band performed them with a suitable mix of swagger and intelligence. If the set had a drawback, it was the singer’s insistence on playing all of “Skull Orchard” but no songs from the rest of his career. It wasn’t till the encore, which featured a playfully frenzied rendition of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” that Langford broke free of the album’s concept. Chicago Sun-Times / January 16, 1998,
BY: Jim DeRogatis
I can’t get enough of “Skull Orchard,” the first proper solo album by Mekons/Waco Brothers leader Jon Langford, recently released on the local Sugar Free label. Langford draws on many of the same influences that inspire his other groups, with maybe a little less country than the Wacos and a bit more folk than the Mekons. But the disc’s strength is that it boasts some of his strongest songs since 1988′s “So Good It Hurts,” my personal Mekons fave.
Is it too much to hope that the snarky “Tom Jones Levitation” or the rollicking “Penny Arcades” hits on the level of that obnoxious drinking song by Langford pals Chumbawamba? Probably, but one can hope. From Dallas Observer:
Giving in Jon Langford made his legend pouring delicious doses of fear and whiskey, crafting unexpected rock and roll for a major label that never appreciated his genius, becoming the kind of Waco Brother that David Koresh could never appreciate, and looking for ancient honky-tonks in the fairy tales of his own imagination. If myth came with royalties, Jon Langford would be a millionaire.
Instead, this displaced Mekon is a Renaissance man out of time; 20 years into a career begun by a handful of art-school reactionaries, Langford’s still on a minor-league label writing major-league songs, just one more unappreciated legend killing time while he waits for the big paycheck that will never come. You can almost hear the defiance, and the disappointment, in his voice when he sings of the “Trap Door” beneath his feet on Skull Orchard. In that wonderful inflected growl, he tells of “too much music, too many buildings, too many cars, too many lanes” — and of how too many choices have left us with none at all; how everything has become so diluted, all we’re left with are muted versions of things that once meant something. “The spice of life ground down to zero,” he shrugs in the voice of a man out of work and out of chances. “It feels like Same Street USA/I lost my job, I lost my way/Down the trap door, down the drain.”
Skull Orchard is hardly Langford’s finest collection of music. Like most Mekons records, it’s a roots-rock pastiche, Midwestern music made by a Brit who only recently took up residence in the heartland. Recorded with a few friends, it’s a little fiddle, a little ukulele, a little flute, a lotta guitar, and even more heart. The anguish of Fear and Whiskey, the desperation of The Mekons Story, the temper of The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll have subsided, replaced by a mellowed man who breathes melody instead of fire. The recklessness has been reigned in; the anger has been tempered.
Once, a song like “My Own Worst Enemy” would have been hollered over mock anthemic riffs; now, it’s an almost poignant spaghetti-western ballad about a man who reinvents himself every morning because he doesn’t know who he is anymore. It’s certainly autobiographical, but never confessional or sentimental. He may ask whether you see him as “a friend down the years or some bitter old shit,” but only because he already knows the answer. And when he sings, “I deserve better,” dragging out the last word hopefully, desperately, he isn’t asking for pity — maybe just a little understanding.
– Robert Wilonsky